By Robert Allen and Paul Egan
Under mounting pressure to rip out and replace lead pipes that connect an estimated 15,000 or more customers to main water lines, Gov. Rick Snyder said at a news conference Wednesday that the state first intends to make the existing pipes safe by rebuilding a protective coating between the lead and the water.
The governor also announced that the State of Michigan is opening an office in Flint, to be headed by Rich Baird, a controversial figure who has been a top aide to Snyder since he took office in 2011, at times holding the title "transformation manager." Baird is a Flint native, Snyder said.
The governor said the state is still trying to determine where all the lead service lines in Flint are located, and that replacing them will be a long-term issue.
"It's a lot of work to take out pipes, to redo all the infrastructure," Snyder said.
As an immediate step, the state has restored corrosion controls to the water system. Those are the chemical phosphates that were missing from the water between April 2014 and October 2015, because of mistakes by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and City of Flint. The lack of corrosion controls allowed corrosive Flint River water to carry away lead from pipes, joints and fixtures. Over time, Snyder said, the phosphates will build up a protective coating between the pipes and the water they carry, making them capable of delivering safe drinking water.
Snyder's statements set up a potential battle between his administration and activists who are pushing the state to make replacement of Flint's water infrastructure a top priority. On Wednesday morning, the ACLU of Michigan, along with other groups and individuals, filed a lawsuit that asks a federal judge to order the state and city to replace Flint's lead service lines quickly. That work is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, and estimates of total water infrastructure work needed in Flint have ranged as high as $1.5 billion.
Snyder conceded there is a "trust issue" about whether and when Flint's pipes can carry safe water, despite the fact that the city was returned in October to Lake Huron water treated by the water treatment plant in Detroit.
But, he said, Flint residents won't have to take his word or that of his department heads on when the water is safe to drink. Instead, the administration will rely on outside experts, such as Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech researcher who sounded the alarm about high lead levels in Flint water last summer, months before the state took action.
Edwards and pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose warnings about a spike in lead levels in the blood of Flint children were similarly disputed by state officials, will both be members of a 17-person committee of experts Snyder named Wednesday to oversee the safety of Flint water going forward. Other members include Mott Children's Health Center President and CEO Lawrence Reynolds and Laura Sullivan, a mechanical engineering professor at Kettering University in Flint, who also helped sound the alarm about lead in Flint water.
"No longer is there a difference of opinion between those who were identifying this problem and those who were denying the problem," said Keith Creagh, who was named interim director of the DEQ in December after Director Dan Wyant resigned over the controversy.
Snyder gave no time estimates, but said some areas of the city don't have lead service lines and tests are under way to determine which neighborhoods can be "cleared" with water that's safe to drink.
Creagh said that nearly 94% of water samples tested are below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion of lead, and 85% are below 5 ppb.
Two days after residents protested water bills outside their city hall, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who appeared with the governor at the news conference, said Snyder has requested $3 million to help.
"I have told Gov. Snyder that Flint residents should not have to pay for water ... they are not using," Weaver said.
She thanked those who are still paying their water bills, "because we know we need money coming in," but said "citizens deserve something" to compensate them for paying for water unfit to drink.
"I was glad that the governor said these are just first steps, because I'm looking for a staircase," Weaver said. "We need more. We want more."
Snyder's decision to put Baird in charge of his new Flint office drew immediate criticism from Democrats.
In August 2014, Baird repaid Clinton County $16,700 for back taxes and interest for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 tax years after it was revealed he had been claiming a primary residence tax exemption in both Michigan and Illinois.
Baird, a friend and mentor to Snyder from the governor's former days as an accountant, was initially paid $100,000 a year from Snyder's New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify Fund (NERD), which Snyder shut down amid controversies over its acceptance of anonymous corporate donations.
Baird's name also figured in controversies over pay increases of 80% and 90% awarded to certain Treasury Department investment officials, and a state furniture contract involving Snyder's cousin.
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press